They say that when in a city you’ve never visited before, you should look up. That’s just what nearly 100 tourists were doing aboard the Chicago’s Little Lady boat on the afternoon of Aug. 8, 2004, as the vessel took them under the downtown Kinzie Street Bridge during an architectural tour.

Unfortunately, they saw something they weren’t expecting: 800 pounds of human waste dropping from a grille in the bridge platform, heading straight for them. That’s because, above their heads, a tour bus driver had taken the decision to empty his vehicle’s septic tank into the river. It proved to be a $300,000-plus decision.

The Chicago Tribune reported the tourists had been bathed in “foul-smelling, brownish-yellow slurry that ruined their clothes and made several of them sick.” None was reported to have suffered any long-term ill effects, though several went to a hospital. The offer of a full refund from Chicago’s First Lady Cruises wouldn’t have done much to alleviate matters as the company took the boat out of service to wash it down with disinfectant. Claims for ruined clothes followed – but worse was to come.

Dave Matthews first heard about the incident – which became known as “Poopgate” – a little later, and laughed the way you would if you weren’t involved. Only, he was involved … he just didn’t know it yet. Later that month, he knew all too well when the state of Illinois filed a lawsuit, demanding $70,000 from the band for violation of environmental laws, and citing video evidence for the claim.

“Our driver has stated that he was not involved in this incident,” a spokesman for Matthews said. He noted the band would “continue to be co-operative in this investigation.” Eventually, Stefan Wohl admitted he’d done the deed. The 42-year-old, who was driving violinist Boyd Tinsley’s bus, had dropped the load into the Chicago River while he was the only person aboard the bus, presumably in a bid to save himself a trip to an authorized waste depot.

Wohl, 42 at the time, lost his job, was ordered to serve 18 months of probation and 150 hours of community service, and fined $10,000. The band eventually paid a $200,000 settlement fee – and that was after it made goodwill donations of $50,000 to the Chicago Park District and $50,000 to the Friends of the Chicago River (which also received the proceeds of Wohl’s fine).

“Although the band members were not on the bus when the incident took place, we have always said that if it was our bus we would take responsibility for what happened," the spokesman said following the legal action. The state’s attorney general noted the settlement was “reasonable and appropriate given the public health threat caused by this foul incident.” The band further agreed to keep records of when and where its septic tanks were emptied.

“I’ll apologize for that as long as I have to,” Matthews told NBC in 2009. “I didn't have my finger on the button … but it was one of the buses in my employment and so I feel bad about it. It would be funnier if it was anyone else but me. ... I know some people there accept my apology and other people don’t, but I can’t do anything about it now. If Snoop Dogg had done it, it probably would have raised his record sales, but it applies differently to everybody.”

Matthews may be apologizing for a long time still to come, since, inevitably, Poopgate has passed into folklore. Spoof news site The Onion ran a story claiming that the exact same boat and tourists had been targeted again, and that Matthews had “personally offered to provide free lifetime concert tickets to the victims if this somehow happened a third time.” A local reporter – coincidentally named David Matthews – revealed the existence of a handmade sign placed on the bridge to commemorate the incident.

A YouTuber filmed himself retelling the sordid story to a group of bemused tourists, complete with alleged eyewitness accounts. You can watch the video below.

Remembering Poopgate affectionately, Laura Turner wrote in The Cut in 2018 that "for Matthews, whose songs all seem to be (very) thinly veiled references to doing drugs with his friends, maintaining an air of gravitas was key to his image. He wasn’t a joker or prankster, he was the guy you would smoke a cigarette with while talking about death.

"Which is what makes it all the funnier that it was his bus that dumped 800 pounds of human waste on the patrons of the arts touring Chicago’s architectural scene by boat that cool summer day. Poop is juvenile, unserious, disgusting, base and hilarious. The Dave Matthews Band, in its own estimation and mine – until a certain point, at least – was none of those things.”

 

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